The drama in Unstoppable ensues after a pair of negligent railway engineers, working for the Allegheny and West Virginia Railroad (AWVR), loses control of a freight train and allow it to enter the main line unmanned. When they are instructed to move the train off it's current track to make room for a train carrying a class of school children on an excursion, one of the engineers (Ethan Suplee) irresponsibly decides not to connect the locomotives air hose to save time, leaving the lone control of the air brakes within the lead locomotive. When he discovers that an approaching switch is not set to the right track, he disembarks the lead locomotive to switch it by hand, but the levers inside the lead car switch from idle on their own accord. The train picks up speed, his attempts to re-board are unsuccessful and the train takes off along the Pennsylvania main line.
This also marks the first day of Will Colson's (Chris Pine) career at AWVR. Newly hired, and only four months out of training, he is partnered with veteran engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington). Colson, on arrival, is met with ridicule from Barnes' veteran colleague, who reveals his despise for rookie conductors, who are brought in on lower salaries to replace the more experienced veterans, who are subsequently laid off. It is revealed later that Barnes is one of the men made redundant. Barnes and Colson take their locomotive out to Southern Pennsylvania city of Stanton, where they pick up their train for the day. Colson, distracted by phone calls that update his ongoing appeal to the restraining order placed against him by his wife, by mistake attaches too many cars. Unable to reverse their load to return the cars, they start out for their destination along the main line in the opposing direction to the unmanned train.
Once news of the unmanned train is made known to Yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), she notifies Ned (Lew Temple), a welder for the railroad, to set a switch to maneuver the train off the main line, as the two negligent engineers attempt to catch up with the train by car. Once it is discovered the train is running under full power, not 'coasting' as previously thought, and carrying highly toxic chemicals and diesel fuel, Connie calls her superior, Oscar Galvin (Kevin Dunn) and informs him of the potentially disastrous situation if the train reaches the city of Stanton. Travelling at speed through densely populated areas, Connie and Galvin argue about the proper course of action, and after an unsuccessful derailment attempt at an evacuated town, it is left to the heroics of Colson and Barnes to stop the train. Due to Colson's mistake of attaching too many cars, they barely exit the main line in time to avoid the unmanned train, but they decide to release their front locomotive and drive it backwards in desperate pursuit of the runaway.
It is ludicrous, but exciting, heart-pounding entertainment. The opening third of the film is ridiculously lame and reminded me of Training Day all over again. Denzel Washington plays the veteran assigned with the rookie on his first day. He extends his knowledge and instructs him to ask if he doesn't know something, but challenges him to prove his training. They share small talk, and slowly begin to reveal the details of their personal lives throughout the day, which become more intimate and dramatic as their situation becomes even more dangerous. One such exchange is particularly corny when Barnes asks Colson if he is married. He replies: "Yep...sorta...it's a long story", which Barnes' replies: "Well it's a long day." Wow.
There also happens to be a group of school children on a railway excursion on the same day as all this transpires, and at one point their train is running head-on towards the speeding runaway, barely switching off the main line before a collision. They are never seen again. Related to this, there is also a Safety Inspector from the Railway Commission (Kevin Corrigan) waiting at Connie Hooper's office to deliver a presentation to the children. Conveniently he sticks around and assists Barnes throughout their pursuit and attempts to slow the train. Everything is majorly exaggerated here, from the terrifying speed of the train, to the series of implausible incidents that happen en-route of the main line in an attempt to stop the train, to the unnecessary conflict that ensues between Connie Hooper and Galvin. Also amazing is the startling footage that the media captures of their heroics, equipped with swiftly produced diagrams of the possible outcome of the plan to derail, which is being broadcast live around the Nation. Despite all of these ridiculous features, and a screenplay riddled with horrible dialogue, it is hard not to be overwhelmed with excitement and emotion by the end.
Washington and Pine are very well cast, and while their characters are pretty cliche to the genre, they bring a toughness and likability to their roles. Rosario Dawson, who looks at first to be miscast, is also quite good. But the shallow supporting characters are all poorly developed. Tony Scott's hyperactive visual style, which was distracting in many of his previous films, is quite controlled here. The runaway train is captured from all angles as this ominous missile (as Connie Hooper calls it) chugging towards what feels like oblivion for Stanton, while the close synchronised passing of trains, and the final pursuit is technically brilliant. The pace is relentless and the stunts are impressive. Unstoppable is much better than I expected, and one of Tony Scott's best films. Though seemingly implausible, littered with cliches and predictable, the final forty minutes is some of the most heart-pounding action I have seen in a long time, transforming this into just above-average popcorn fare.
My Rating: 3 Stars